Since Trump’s election, almost everyone with a pen and a bit of self-confidence has composed at least one essay discussing Trumpian nationalism—what caused it, how to address it, how to harness it, et cetera. Consequently, such essays have become an almost customary means for the experienced to demonstrate their experience, the intellectuals their intellect, and most folk—their ignorance. Chris DeMuth, a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute and former President of the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote such a piece in the Claremont Review of Books, which has already earned accolades from the likes of such figures as F.H. Buckley, Yuval Levin, and Henry Olsen.
Of all the beltway’s conservative wonks, DeMuth is perhaps the wonkiest. His resume features gigs in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations and his tenure as AEI’s president transformed the institution into the leviathan of respectability it is today—due in large part to his acquisition of swamp-heavyweights like Dick and Lynne Cheney, Newt Gingrich, and James K. Glassman. Little more need be said to flesh out a picture of DeMuth than that as an undergrad, he imbibed AEI literature, and as a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy school, he assigned it. Thus, as would be expected, his Trumpian nationalism essay is an impressive specimen replete with the best features of the breed: history, political theory, and a welter of practical policy prescriptions. Yet, like most of its kin, it’s stillborn—not because its prescriptions would be harmful nor because it isn’t nuanced enough, but because it has no sense of the nature of nationalism at heart.
DeMuth begins his essay with the sentence, “Trumpism has an essence, and that essence is nationalism,” and then pivots to argue that the rise of Trumpian nationalism is the consequence of social and technological developments, which have cumulatively “weakened our institutions of representative government.” This weakening has, according to DeMuth, resulted in a burgeoning political divide between what the political analyst David Goodhart describes as ‘Anywheres’ and ‘Somewheres’. The former, whom tend toward progressivism, are, according to DeMuth, “cosmopolitan, educated, mobile, and networked” while the latter, commonly understood as “conservative,” are “rooted in particular local communities.”
Over the last few decades, DeMuth argues, Congress has handled the complexity involved in governing an increasingly complex state through the delegation of its constitutional responsibilities to a vast and less democratically accountable bureaucracy, which he terms “declarative government.” The Anywheres, according to DeMuth, first and best understood this phenomenon, so when they have a problem with the way things run, they—with their education, social capital, and financial resources—engage the bureaucracy. But the Somewheres languishing in the hinterlands still look to their increasingly impotent local representatives.
As a kind of counterfactual, DeMuth asks us to imagine a world wherein, following the Cold War, all the major western powers “had continued to be dominated by their national legislatures, with all of the posturing, parochialism, and muddled compromises that would have entailed.” If such were the case, DeMuth argues, elites and Anywheres would have had to accommodate the hinterlanders and the world would be “more stable and harmonious than where we have ended up.” This vision of inelegant, but effective political progress, facilitated by democratic institutions making compromises for a country’s sundry interest groups is DeMuth’s picture of a healthy state. Conversely, it is precisely in the unhealthy state, rife with inadequately appeased constituencies, wherein DeMuth posits that nationalism arises—meaning that, for DeMuth, nationalism is a sort of salubrious clarion call to rekindle democracy and bake good-governance pie.
In that vein, DeMuth laments that this wholesome model of state too often gets short shrift. He writes, “The nation-state has acquired a bad reputation… It is widely regarded as an arbitrary inheritance and source of misery—of wars over territory and ancient myths, and of grievances and hatreds among racial and ethnic groups.” DeMuth claims that this reputation is superficial and urges us to look to Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism for a demonstration that the nation-state is a world-historical institution of human progress.
DeMuth proceeds to give a sweeping Hazonyist account of the nation state as a thing “forged in the Israelites’ Biblical escape from Egypt” and “developed and propagated” by the Protestant Reformation, Peace of Westphalia, and, of course, the American Revolution. This sort of state, Demuth explains, “cultivates its sovereignty” by “sustaining the allegiance of its citizens” and “promoting their interests;” it “does not aggravate, but rather respects and builds upon, the parochial loyalties of its constituent tribes,” largely by constraining “internal conflict” and pursuing “objectives that require large-scale cooperation across its entire geography.” Finally, DeMuth concludes, “Americans have done this brilliantly down the centuries […] But lately we seem to have lost the knack.”
So, In light of our present discontents, DeMuth sagaciously advises, “We need a more capacious nationalism.” To accomplish this, DeMuth recommends Adrian Vermeule’s strategy: integrating hinterlanders (or folk with appropriate sympathies) into the bureaucracy. Similarly, DeMuth suggests strengthening Congress by, among other things, encouraging a stronger relationship between it and the executive branch. Taking a note from Jay Cost, DeMuth also suggests the cultivation of stronger political parties that can write and pass legislation more capably.
Further, as a way of facilitating “effective nationalism,” DeMuth recommends leaders “bring issues of American identity and purpose to the forefront of political debate,” like “equal educational opportunity,” “freedom of inquiry,” and “the competitive market economy.” Lastly, DeMuth suggests we ought to prepare for “the impending collapse of the debt-financed welfare state,” mostly by figuring out a way to pay for it all via taxes, noting, “it would be nice if a few courageous souls in active politics would specialize in mastering and advertising the problems.”
DeMuth’s analysis is thoroughly colored by a very particular notion of the nature of nationalism and the nation state. It’s a mellow notion—palatable even to dour beltway politicos. Yet, it paints a picture that seems suspiciously far too conventional, respectable, and irenic to be remotely accurate.
Last year, when Hazony, a respected Israeli Biblical scholar and former aide to Prime Minister Netanyahu, came out with The Virtue of Nationalism, nationalists in D.C. hungry for legitimacy fell in adulatory rapture. Conservative reviewers declared it “compelling,” “stimulating,” and “magnificent,” and nowadays, its rhetoric has become de rigueur for folk ranging from elder-wonks like DeMuth to popular pundits like Dennis Prager and Ben Shapiro. However, even when it was first published, a few reviewers briefly noted in disappointed tones that its theoretical structure was less than sound. For instance, one review in the Intelligencer noted, “The book’s major flaw is that Hazony tends to define his terms as ideal types and then argue from those definitions.” Likewise, as another review in Modern Age noted, his argument “rests on a confusing and counterproductive use of terms.” Specifically, the dichotomous and confusing “ideal types” that Hazony presents are the nation governed by an “Independent National State” and the empire governed by a “liberal” political order.
Hazony defines the former as “a number of tribes with a shared heritage […] a past history of joining together against common enemies […] under a single standing government, independent of all other governments” and by the second, he seems to mean almost everything else. He does this by trussing imperialism, universalism, and philosophical rationalism into a category he terms “Liberal Imperialism.” This makes his argument neater, but less compelling—not just because his account of the latter seems like a catchall, but because his account of the former is similarly dubious.
Early on in the book, Hazony draws up a caricature of Locke’s social contract theory that confuses it with a theory of historical explanation (as opposed to a thought experiment) and then sets out to refute it. However, instead of presenting a historical account of nations better than his caricature, he draws up an equally strange account where families, not individuals, bind themselves into tribes, then clans, and ultimately a nation (note the echoes of this in DeMuth’s argument). Unlike most theorists of nationalism, who argue that in the forging of nations, tribes and clans give way to a nation-centered order, as was clearly the case, for instance, with the Normans and Saxons of England, Hazony maintains that these tribes and clans “continue to exist” as part of a tenuous national “composite.” He then moves to an account of “Liberal Imperialism.”
In constructing this account of the loathsome foil to the nation state, Hazony cherry picks bits of Cicero and engages in revisionist speculation to argue that the driving force underlying Roman policy was not, as most would assume, “Senatus Populusque Romanus” (The Senate and People of Rome) or its rich religious, historical, and cultural heritage. Instead, he argues that Rome, and the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and all the other great empires of history conducted their foreign policy in an attempt to establish “a universal empire of peace and prosperity.” This apparent lack of acknowledgment of the nationalistic impetus underlying imperial activity results in increasingly incoherent lines of argumentation.
Generally, Hazony chalks up English, Dutch, and French expansionism to bouts of infection with liberal ideology. Later in his book, however, he inexplicably argues that empires usually contain a “ruling nation” at their core, which coerces and enslaves other nations. He notes, seemingly contradictorily, “while empires like to identify their cause with the ultimate good of humanity, this cause is almost always closely associated with the domination of one nation at the expense of all others.” This seems like a clear admission that his dichotomy between imperialism and nationalism is misleading—because a political order necessarily involving the furthering of national aims, at the very least, seems nationalist.
Hazony, however, contends that the nation state, which according to him is a state wherein the individual “constantly desires and actively pursues the health and prosperity of the […] nation to which he is tied by bonds of mutual loyalty,” by its nature “tends to disdain the idea of conquering foreign nations.” In support of this notion, he lists a variety of reasons as to why it would be advantageous for nations not to engage in expansion. But, as history regularly demonstrates, these reasons rarely prevail and definitely don’t seem baked into the nature of nationhood. Perhaps the most revealing portion of the book is where Hazony tries desperately—and unconvincingly—to argue that Nazi Germany was not nationalist.
Because Hitler was no fan of tiny, bounded nation states, Hazony argues that Nazism was actually an almost perfect antithesis to authentic nationalism. He describes it as an imperial project, which he defined in an earlier chapter as a political modality concerned with “peace and prosperity.” Unsurprisingly, when we look at what Hazony calls the “empirical political world,” the world where these different types of states actually manifest, we find a state that doesn’t at all correspond to Hazony’s “universalist,” Kantian aims. The third Reich smashed many nation-states, but not so that it could impose a Universalist justice for the benefit of the conquered, but so that the German nation could achieve its explicitly national ambitions.
Adolf Hitler himself said with regard to Eastern Europe, “There is only one duty: to Germanize this country by the immigration of Germans, and to look upon the natives as Redskins.” Similarly, Nazism’s chief political theorist and director of the third Reich’s Foreign office Alfred Rosenberg wrote, while developing the notion of Lebensraum, “The German nation, if it is not to perish in the truest sense of the word, needs ground and soil for itself and its future generations […] these organically determine the German foreign policy for centuries.” So, it seems that this imperialistic urge to expand is not only compatible with nationalism, but often stems directly from an adherence to national goals. Obviously, nationalism is not quite as benign as Hazony describes it. This becomes abundantly clear if we examine the prime case that Hazony offers up as an exemplar of wholesome, authentic nationalism: biblical and modern-day Israel.
While Hazony claims that legitimate national states “tend to disdain the idea of conquering foreign nations,” the nation of Israel found in the Old Testament didn’t seem to have any qualms with sweeping into Canaan from the Sinai Peninsula and conquering its various city-states until the land became eponymous with the triumphant nation. Correspondingly, the Palestinians, who are, at the very least, a foreign nation unwillingly subject to the Israeli government’s authority, seem to present evidence that a state, which Hazony describes with gratuitous reams of prose, as exemplary of nationalism can act in a way that closely parallels states that Hazony conceives of as particularly non-nationalist.
That Israel, among other undeniably nationalist states, engages in arguably imperialistic behavior owing to its national ambitions demonstrates that, in large part, Hazony’s empirical distinction between imperial and national states has little explanatory power. Further, that the slightest glance at Israel today reveals that the biblical tribes of Israel have, much like the Normans and Saxons of yore, given way to a very much singular national identity reveals that his notion of nations as fundamentally tenuous compositions of continually existent tribes threaded together by a common government, seems, at the very least, overwrought.
If this strange, contradictory account of nationalism heralded by DeMuth et al represented the first attempt to shed light on the subject, its incoherence would be forgivable—but it isn’t. Though Hazony references a handful of prominent political theorists, he largely draws his nationalist theory from sources of recent derivation—notably Fania Oz-Salzberger’s “The Jewish Roots of Western Freedom,” and Philip Gorski’s “The Mosaic Moment.” These and other comparable articles written in Israel and the Anglosphere portray nationalism as a descendant of the biblical Israeli model, which is, in turn, why DeMuth’s account of the nation state begins with Exodus. It’s an interesting area of scholarship, yet the many folks who’ve adopted Hazony’s notions might be surprised to learn that there exists a robust body of nationalist theory that’s been developing since the 19th century.
The absence of substantive engagement with this body of work in Hazony’s theory and by most conservative American writers struggling to come to terms with Trumpian nationalism is conspicuous. Likely, the reason these folk avoid engaging with this corpus is that while it is quite cogent, it admits that nationalism is culpable of precisely what it is accused of by its liberal critics.
Nationalism is neither a wholly ancient nor peaceful political modality. This is taken for granted by virtually all canonical nationalist theorists, and consequently, their descriptive accounts and defenses of nationalism ring far truer than Hazony’s. In the political theory, for example, of the French philosopher Ernest Renan, one can find a nationalism that retains the few compelling qualities of Hazony’s argument: the emphasis on shared suffering and triumph and loyalty to an abstract entity—without the ridiculous distinctions and empirically indefensible arguments relating to civic religion and anthropological architecture. Likewise, in Nations and Nationalism by the British-Czech philosopher Ernest Gellner, one can read a fascinating functionalist account of nationalism that describes the relationship between changing material conditions and the birth of the nation state. And for those who wish to understand nationalist theory precisely as it was understood by its most ardent and loathed supporters, there are a colorful jumble of idealist German and Italian theorists including Giovanni Gentile, Karl Rosenkranz, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte.
The following is a simplified sketch of nationalism and the nation state as one finds it in canonical nationalist theory: The nation, distinct from the state, is maintained as an entity via two intimately united factors, to quote Renan’s formulation, “One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is […] the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form.” This will—the romanticized Hegelian version of which is the glamorous Volksgeist—is the thing that animates the nation state; insofar as the nation state obeys it, the state is legitimate. Nationalism, as a political movement, aims at the reconciliation of the nation to a singular will and for the state to become a means by which that will is made law—typically employing a vision of Palingenesis (national rebirth). Different formulations of nationalism place much emphasis on cultivating a shared racial, linguistic, aesthetic, or religious character, as conditions either instrumental or fundamental to successfully cultivating and obeying the national will, (e.g. Fichte emphasizes shared language and Rosenberg blood).
In contrast to all this, DeMuth and other Hazonyists consider nations to be simple federations of interests groups coming together in a sort of quaint covenant aimed at protecting interests that may or may not include the protection of a shared religion, language, and geography. It is a pleasant and commodious picture, though not one of nationalism. Rather, it’s a relatively faithful portrait of liberal democratic republicanism, the likes of which—because of America’s history as a country constituted of a jumble of states, races, and religions—has been more or less America’s dominant political dynamic since the founding. (This likely explains why Hazony’s account of nationalism is so wildly popular with American conservatives.) This egregious discrepancy between nationalism as some Americans would have it and as it is, however, leads to situations where policy prescriptions ostensibly meant to address nationalists, are altogether contrary to their interests.
For example, DeMuth prescribes greater representation of Somewheres alongside Anywheres, whereas nationalism requires a reconciliation of the two; DeMuth prescribes the integration of various interest groups within the bureaucracy, nationalism requires the subservience of the bureaucracy to a singular national interest; DeMuth prescribes stronger national parties, nationalism requires the cultivation of a singular strong people’s party, and so on. As to all of DeMuth’s other recommendations regarding “effective nationalism”—that leaders champion open markets, public education, and free speech at “the forefront of political debate,” plus some folk figure out how to finance welfare programs solely via taxes—they’re all clearly things that would be beneficial if done, but not quite salient to nationalist aims.
Those who offer analyses of Trumpian nationalism based on a Hazonyist or similarly misguided theoretical perspective fail to recognize that contemporary nationalism in the United States is profoundly different from the quaint political modalities of yesteryear. A growing proportion of the American people are choiring out for the swamp to be drained of its croaking factions and for the state to reify its multitudinous song of American greatness. Nationalists will adopt policy prescriptions only insofar as they meet that end and if nationalists happen not to have any sensible policy prescriptions at their disposal, they will surely default to the exceedingly less sensible strategies employed almost a century ago by their European forbears.
Michael Shindler is a writer living in Washington, DC. His work has been published in outlets including The American Conservative, The American Spectator, National Review Online, University Bookman, and RealClearDefense. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelShindler.